Town consultant over budget

Aug. 30, 2013 @ 06:43 PM

When the Town Council hired Rhodeside & Harwell to help plan for future growth in the town’s Central West Focus Area, the contract called for the consulting firm to be paid $92,000.
That was to cover, among other things, four meetings of the area’s 17-member steering committee and one community workshop.
But over the past several months, the committee’s work plan has evolved to include 16 steering committee meetings, three community workshops, additional meetings and the production of materials to help the committee complete its work by November so that it can present a plan for growth and development in the area.
As a result of the additional meetings and heavier workload, the consultant’s fee has ballooned to $230,000 -- $138,000 more than the original amount of the contract.
By July, nearly one year into the contract, the consultant’s had already billed the town $170,582, with at least two months of work left to do to develop a small area plan for the Central West Focus Area to present to the Town Council in November. 
“We are aware that this process has been far more extensive than any of us had anticipated, and, while we are committed to seeing the plan through to a successful conclusion, we would be happy to discuss ways to limit our role in the upcoming months if the town deems this to be appropriate,” Deana Rhodeside, director of the consulting firm, wrote in a Aug. 15 letter Mary Jane Nirdlinger, the towns director of policy and strategic initiatives.
Town Manager Roger Stancil warned in an email to council members that the additional money spent on the Central West Focus Area could slow progress on other such efforts.
“This may affect our ability to begin new efforts or may delay the continuation of other efforts,” Stancil wrote. “However, we believe it is important for the council to receive a complete product for this focus area.” 
The Central West Community includes the area west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between the area just north of Estes Drive and extending south to Mt. Bolus Road.
It is one of six focus areas identified during the Chapel Hill 2020 process to rewrite the town’s comprehensive plan to guide growth and development over the next 20 years.
Additional money spent on Central West would be taken from funds the council identified for implementing Chapel Hill 2020.
“That’s where those dollars are going to come from,” Kleinschmidt explained. “It’s just takes up more of it this fiscal year than we thought it would.”
The cost overrun has some members of the steering committee and council concerned.
“I am shocked by the difference in our original scope and the revised one,” Councilman Gene Pease wrote in response to Stancil’s email.
Pease said that in conversations with steering committee members, he was told that the increase in cost for the consultant is due to “significant amount of waste time in organization,” “certain committee members are obstructionist for a process that moves along and how to manage them more effectively” and there are “too many meetings and meetings that are too long.” 
He said he would like a report in the fall detailing lessons learned and how the town can do better.
When asked about Pease’s comments, McClintock, a member of the area’s steering committee, said, “I strongly disagree with that.”
McClintock brought the matter up at a candidate forum Thursday when she asked Mayor Pro Tem Ed Harrison what council members can do to ensure such cost overruns don’t occur.
Harrison said in that particular case, the consultant was also acting as a meeting facilitator, which he does not believe is a good idea.
“I think that’s a case where the consultants should not have been a facilitator for examination of their own products, that we should have had a free-standing facilitator,” Harrison said. “We have a number of them in town government who can do it.”
Exactly who authorized the expanded scope of work is unclear.
While some point a finger at the steering committee for making additional demands on the consultants, others say the matter is strictly between the town and the consultant.
“We have been in the dark about what the town has asked the consultant to do,” said McClintock, adding that the committee has no authority to expend town funds or give direction to its contractor.